Monday, May 01, 2006


The desire to have the Phallus (or, in Derridean terms, to enter the Centre) is caused by a fundamental lack at the heart of adult human life. The Phallus (which, as all dictionaries of psychoanalysis will tell you, really has nothing to do with the penis) is the symbolic place where there is no lack. It is what we all strive for, and what we can never attain.

The source of this idea of a perfect, complete, unified symbolic realm can be found in Lacan's Mirror Stage. When the child sees an image of itself in the mirror, it sees a representation of itself as a whole which is at odds with the chaotic, uncoordinated sense it previously had of itself and the outside world. But this is something of a mixed blessing.

First, because it is the stage when the child first perceives 'itself' and 'others'. Up to this point, Lacan says, the child is the world: there is no separation between itself, its mother, and the rest of the world: the child lives in the unstructured, but nevertheless unified, realm of the Real.

And second, because the idealised image of the self-as-other in the mirror becomes a kind of imaginary role-model to which one can never quite compare. Hence the terrible pangs of inadequacy and alienation which afflict the person who cannot live up to the expectations placed on him by himself and (he perceives) by others.

Thus, in many ways the Phallus and the Real are very similar. Leaving Nature and entering the world of Culture (the Symbolic realm, the world of language, the world of the social etc) involves Lack: a loss of unity from the mother's body, a loss of unity of self and other, the paralysis of meaning caused by the need for language. In order to deal with this traumatic transition, we misperceive ourselves as being (or, at least, capable of being) complete. Paradoxically then, the entry into Culture is caused by and reverts back to a situation where the self is all, and where there is no O/other. Perhaps this is not so paradoxical after all: the desire for the Phallus is merely a search for a self which is not alienated, complete unto itself.

One Homo Ludens regular has questioned how and whether the Lacanian approach is dialectical or materialist or both. The strength of Lacan over ego-psychoanalysis is that he explains how the self and the rest of the world are in constant tension with each other, how the self is inseparable from the O/other (meaning everything outside of itself), how the primary of the ego is impossible. In other words, self=other=self=other etc etc. The opposing tensions of Nature and Culture interconnect everything, and are the cause of the constant change. As Adam Phillips has stated, "Our nightmare of total transparency conflicts with our dream of being entirely known. So we do our best to have it both ways. Hugging our right to silence close to us, we sally forth into the world in search of friends, lovers, therapists"...

Materialism is also ever present in psychoanalysis. Matter - the severing of the link with the mother, the introduction of the social, the identification with the self/other as something more than a nebulous blob - is the source of the inevitable alienation of the individual. Of course, Marx stresses alienation as the cause of the misery of modern man, but he sees it as being caused by the separation between exploited worker and product, and between exploited consumer and product. Following on from Freud, Lacan sees alienation embedding itself far earlier in life. But Lacan's stress on the ping-pong relationship between the self and other (or between the individual and society) allows his analysis to sit comfortably alongside that of Marx. Both identify the constancy of change, and both know that this change means that ideologies must be investigated in the light of their history (and their future).

If there is a difference, perhaps it is how Lacan and Marx perceive objective reality. Marx sees objective reality as existing as an absolute truth: this reality is, of course, rooted in history. The truth may be elusive, it may be hidden from view, and it may need a person or persons to reveal it and use it, but it is there all the same. For Marx, there is a perfectly objective reality to reflect, even if the reflection is never perfect. For Lacan, the reflection of reality is the cause of (rather than a potential solution to) alienation.


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